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Exotic expansion

Oklahoma City Zoological Park and Botanical Garden focuses on consumer engagement with its Sanctuary Asia expansion.

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OKC Zoo’s Sanctuary Asia expansion includes a new building that houses exhibits and a restaurant with views of elephants, rhinos and Komodo dragons. - PROVIDED
  • provided
  • OKC Zoo’s Sanctuary Asia expansion includes a new building that houses exhibits and a restaurant with views of elephants, rhinos and Komodo dragons.

Oklahoma City Zoological Park and Botanical Garden enjoyed yet another record attendance year in 2016 with more than 1 million visitors.

If Dwight Lawson, the zoo’s executive director and CEO, and his team’s consumer engagement push has any say in it, that number will easily move past 1.1 million when the shiny new Sanctuary Asia exhibit debuts Sept. 28.

Hoping to build off the wildly popular elephant exhibit that opened in 2011, Sanctuary Asia is part two of more than $30 million in projects designated to give the zoo a facelift.

“With the success of the elephant exhibit out on the far end of the zoo, all the guests were coming in and they were coming out this far and experiencing this great exhibit, but then there was nothing to hold them there,” Lawson said.

That all changes with construction completed on the new $22 million, 6.6-acre addition. The 17-month construction that broke ground in February 2017 centers on a two-story restaurant, adding an additional 3.5 acres to the existing 4.5 acres of the Asian elephant habitat, space for animals like red pandas and Komodo dragons and a splash pad.

“We took a step back and said, ‘Let’s look at how people are using the zoo and what the other needs may be,’” Lawson said. “We took that opportunity to re-tool.”

A rendering of OKC Zoo's Sanctuary Asia - PROVIDED
  • provided
  • A rendering of OKC Zoo's Sanctuary Asia

Altering vision

Seven years ago, one of the nation’s largest elephant exhibits debuted at the zoo.

The size (9.5 acres) and cost (roughly $13 million) were just the beginning. Plans were already underway to include more exhibits and another mile or so of pathways in the southwest corner of the property.

The vision quickly changed when Lawson came aboard three years ago.

Everyone from curators and keepers to marketing and maintenance helped brainstorm, which led to the conclusion of making Sanctuary Asia a destination for zoogoers.

“To get the message across and to get people to appreciate stuff a little bit more, you want to provide as comfortable of an experience as possible,” Lawson said. “This does that. It also checks the other boxes with providing more space for key species we’re working with, providing new habitats for animals that are in the older areas — that mix of new and then improving some of the old stuff.”

The restaurant, Lotus Pavilion, is the centerpiece and includes exhibits in an air-conditioned space with restrooms. The top floor features a unique dining experience with views of elephants, rhinos and Komodo dragons, along with backdrops of the lake and park.

When the park closes, the restaurant has the ability to serve as an event venue for parties, rentals and weddings.

“It helps the zoo from a mission as well as a financial standpoint by holding people out there longer,” Lawson said. “They’re actually able to experience more of the zoo and all of these exhibits rather than the typical guest with a kid in tow and once they are tired, they are gone.”

A rendering of OKC Zoo's Sanctuary Asia - PROVIDED
  • provided
  • A rendering of OKC Zoo's Sanctuary Asia

New features

While the focus is on the expanded space for elephants and the addition of the two-story restaurant, the zoo’s expansion creates additional functional uses.

Asian one-horned rhinos, red pandas and Komodo dragons are moving to new and improved facilities in Sanctuary Asia. New animals to the zoo include langurs (endangered primates from Asia), cassowary (an ostrich-sized bird from the area near Papua New Guinea), raccoon dogs and cranes.

Lawson said the Asian theme, which started with the elephants, provides a unique zoo experience that is both family- and socially oriented.

“It’s a logical extension of making that commitment to Asian elephants, that if you’re going to expand on that theme, geographically, that’s where you go,” he said.

As part of the upgrades, zoo patrons can catch an up-close glimpse of elephants and rhinos thanks to a training panel with zoo staffers.

Additionally, a splash pad ties into the master plan. The zoo has a decades-old water stream in the children’s area, so the new splash pad serves a dual purpose as both ornamental and functional.

“It takes a little bit of water, and they’re in it,” Lawson said. “It fits nicely with the overall theme. The kids do love it, so it adds that stay time.”

Lawson said it takes time for the animals to get used to their surroundings.

Now that the expansion is complete, Lawson and his team will turn to mapping out future projects to further enhance the zoo experience.

Lawson, who previously spent 14 years at Zoo Atlanta, most recently as the executive director, noted the OKC zoo still has the acreage to expand if it so chooses.

“We have a lot of land, we’ve got a great funding model and a lot of community support,” he said.

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